A decade of Mushfiqur
On May 26, Mushfiqur Rahim completes ten years in international cricket. Having started off as a chief selector's gamble, he has transformed himself into a role model for all-round consistency, a much sought after quality in Bangladesh cricket.
In a couple of years, a few more of his Bangladesh team-mates will get to the landmark, but Mushfiqur has been the standard-bearer. His is the story of a talented 18-year-old who bucked three trends of Bangladesh cricket - he was a teenaged cricketer who lasted and got better with age; he changed Bangladesh's policy of selecting a wicketkeeper-batsman to one of picking a batsman-wicketkeeper; he is vocal on a number of issues.
The length and quality of his international career stand out among the 24 Bangladesh players who debuted before the age of 19. Mohammad Ashraful remains the youngest to make a century in his debut Test, following which his career stuttered for about 12 years before fizzling out with a five-year ban for fixing. He was the embodiment of inconsistency in Bangladesh cricket. Pace bowler Shahadat Hossain also completes ten years - he made his debut alongside Mushfiqur at Lord's in 2005 - but he has struggled to find a regular spot in the team. Left-arm spinner Enamul Haque Jr has played only 15 Tests since 2003 and he is no longer on the selectors' radar, though he has a bundle of wickets in domestic competitions.
Mashrafe Mortaza also belongs to this group but he stopped playing Test cricket in 2009. Ranjan Das and Anwar Hossain were never picked after their Test debuts. Others struggled for survival at the highest level before giving up or being given up on.
The other difference among these players and Mushfiqur was that the latter looked like a ten-year-old when he made his debut. Ashraful's juvenile arm barely raising his bat after scoring his debut hundred against Sri Lanka in 2001 is hard to forget, but Mushfiqur looked like a kid who was travelling to England with his uncles.
Among those senior figures who were touring England in 2005 were Khaled Mashud, Habibul Bashar and Mohammad Rafique. From 1986 to 2000, Bangladesh had several long-serving cricketers, among whom Minhajul Abedin, Athar Ali Khan and Faruque Ahmed all lasted ten years each but they played only 27, 19 and seven ODIs respectively, and their international careers ended before Bangladesh got Test status.
Mushfiqur trumps all of them. He has kept wicket in 43 of his 45 Tests and has grown into a batting leader for his side in all formats.
Bashar was Mushfiqur's captain when he made his debut. It was a difficult era for Bangladesh cricket. They had won just one and drawn four out of 36 Tests before Mushfiqur's debut. They had lost 20 of those by an innings. The closest they came to beating a higher-ranked opponent was Pakistan in Multan in 2003.
There were repeated calls by commentators, journalists and former cricketers for a review of Bangladesh's Test status. A Test match at Lord's was a privilege some thought they didn't deserve. In 2003, former Australia batsman David Hookes said that Steve Waugh's Australia could even beat Bangladesh in one day.
"I hadn't really played with Mushfiqur Rahim before his Test debut," Bashar said of that 2005 tour, "but he scored a century in one of the warm-up games before the Test match at Lord's. His technique looked good. The first impression was that he was an excellent batsman.
"Truth be told, I didn't really notice whether he was nervous on his debut or not. We all had nerves that day in Lord's. We were all playing our first match on that ground."
Faruque, the current Bangladesh chief selector, was also the chief selector back then and the one who gambled on selecting Mushfiqur. Faruque said he had second thoughts about his tyro when he saw the formidable England attack of Steve Harmison, Andrew Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard and Simon Jones. Bangladesh had sunk to 65 for 4 in the 17th over on the opening day. "When he was walking to the middle I had mixed feelings," Faruque said. "They were bowling a lot of bouncers. I felt it might do something bad to him."
Mushfiqur stuck around for 85 minutes to score 19 off 56 balls. Not the most auspicious debut innings but it was one of three double-figure scores in a dismal effort from Bangladesh. "He showed a lot of courage. It was a good feeling afterwards," Faruque said.
ESPNcricinfo's Andrew Miller, who memorably nicknamed Mushfiqur the Mighty Atom, wrote on that day that he was the "fairytale debutant who played resourcefully late and remained oblivious to the crumbling going on around him... His example is the one that his team-mates must follow - giving their best until they succumb to superior opposition."
Mushfiqur drew the praise of Dav Whatmore, Bangladesh's coach at the time. "He has been a class above the others. He played and missed and got out to a beautiful delivery that hit the top of off, but I've seen enough already to know he has got a good future," he said.
The clarity of purpose Mushfiqur displayed that day remains, another rarity among Bangladesh batsmen.
"It was a great feeling. When I got to Lord's there was some excitement in my heart because I had to face a great team. When I walked out onto the ground, I didn't look at any of the bowlers. I just watched the ball and played," Mushfiqur said.
"I felt [before the game] that I had nothing to lose because I was the youngest, and there is no pressure when you are young and your debut match is at Lord's. It was only afterwards when I was at the dressing-room balcony that I got nervous because they are excellent bowlers. That put me under greater pressure for the second innings."
He missed the second Test due to a thigh injury and later joined the Bangladesh A team in England. But his biggest battle was still 18 months away.
He would be Faruque's gamble once again, this time replacing Mashud behind the stumps in the 2007 World Cup. It was an unpopular move until Mushfiqur proved himself with the bat in the famous win over India in the opening game.
Mushfiqur essentially ensured a smooth transition for Bangladesh in the wicketkeeping department after Mashud left the game. Among the seven wicketkeepers who have played at least 40 Tests since July 2007 (when Mushfiqur started keeping for Bangladesh), he has played the fewest games. But he is the fourth highest scorer, behind MS Dhoni, Matt Prior and Brad Haddin, during this period.
For Bangladesh, he has been one of the most important cricketers in this decade. They have two strong allrounders in Mushfiqur and Shakib Al Hasan, which gives them the ability to bat deep in all formats. These two cricketers took a similar route from their alma mater, the BKSP sports institute, to the BCB's age-group cricket and into the country's first high-performance unit.
Richard McInnes, the former BCB high-performance coach and academy head, oversaw the latter part of Mushfiqur's quick path to international cricket.
"Mushfiqur has not changed much. He was always very focused, keen to learn, and was always very diligent in his practice," McInnes said. "He always trained with purpose, which is why he has continued to improve. He does not rely on his talent, he works to enhance his talent. His career longevity can be attributed to his professionalism, diligence and attention to detail."
Between 2000 and 2005, Bangladesh handed debuts to 16 players who were under 19. Most of these players were pulled from age-group programmes and put into the Test arena, where they struggled and were eventually discarded. Domestic performers were overlooked.
When Mushfiqur was called up for the 2005 England tour, he had only played three first-class matches, in which he had made 200 runs, including an unbeaten 111 against Zimbabwe A in Bulawayo. But Faruque was impressed with Mushfiqur's technique, when measuring him against the top batsmen from the 2004-05 first-class season.
"When I picked Mushfiqur, I thought we needed someone who had the correct technique and courage," Faruque said. "We thought that this is the boy. We had Khaled Mashud as the wicketkeeper at the time. We thought of giving Mushfiqur a chance as a batsman.
"The easier path would have been to pick someone who made runs in domestic cricket. But I took the risk of picking someone who had just played in the age-group levels. A lot of people was saying: 'Why take such a young boy? He hasn't done anything in domestic cricket.'
"But age-level cricket is very important. If it isn't good, a youngster blossoms late and at that age he would have grown up with some bad habits in his game. It will take him time to correct."
Bashar, Faruque's colleague in the selection committee, believes that the reliance on youth in the early days as a Test-playing nation didn't help Bangladesh.
"In the first few years after becoming a Test nation, our selectors were making radical changes. In the first 12 months itself, they hurried towards picking young players when they should have valued experienced cricketers at the time. Test cricket is a stage where you let youngsters play alongside experienced cricketers," he said.
That mix of youth and experience is now in place. Mushfiqur is one of those senior cricketers now, leading the Test team. He has gone through a lot in ten years, but still has bridges to cross. Mushfiqur's captaincy is the subject of intense debate, and so is his overall role in the team. Some want him only as a batsman while others say he remains the best wicketkeeper in the country. How he copes with the pressure of being the Bangladesh captain, and whether or not he relinquishes wicketkeeping, remains to be seen in his second decade as a Bangladesh cricketer.
Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84